What’s Eating You? The Science of “Comfort Food” & Stress-Eating

September 15, 2022

Tad Taggart

"I am enjoying a relationship with two men simultaneously. The first is called Ben, the other, Jerry. Number of current boyfriends: zero." — Bridget Jones, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004 movie)

In the Friends episode “The One with the Thumb”, Monica dates a man named Alan. As the rest of the gang comes to know Alan, they become even more enamored with Alan than Monica. When Monica breaks up with him, the whole crew takes it pretty hard. At one point, she walks in to find them collectively drowning their sorrows in tubs of ice cream.

Why is it that this common trope in television and movies seems to persist? We often see the heartbroken individual turn to a dessert-like food for solace. Many people will see this and at least understand what’s being conveyed, if not have a level of empathy for having a similar experience. We seem tied to this recurring imagery because it resonates with us. It feels familiar. Many people are familiar with and understand the concept of “comfort food”, but did you know that there’s ancient biological wisdom hidden beneath this comedic messaging? For generations, fables and mythical tales have been often told to convey moral lessons or wisdom. In our current age, television and film are our most common vehicle of storytelling, and it’s possible that television could be passing along innate, ancient wisdom.

For most, the common reaction to stressful events is either a noticeable increase or decrease in appetite. But why is that? Why would appetite change at all in response to stress, and why is it different in different people? And with that, why is it we would rather reach for something like ice cream than celery?

Like many of the baffling phenomena related to food and eating, we have to start by looking at the brain. Specifically, we are concerned with the motivational circuit, where dopamine is released after positive experiences to serve as the ‘rewards system’. This motivational circuit overlaps with the limbic system, which is the part of our brain responsible for emotions, reactions to stressors, and responses that are critical to maintaining homeostasis (keeping us safe and functioning). You could refer to the limbic system as our “caveman brain” or “survival brain” because it only knows how to respond to emotions and try to keep us alive. In addition to the limbic system, we need to be familiar with the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for what you might call “higher-level thinking”. This is the region of the brain that is typically responsible for executive functioning, planning, and control of impulses, desires, and cravings. You might call this part of our brain, the “mature adult” brain. During times of high stress, our “mature adult” brain (PFC) is overtaken by the “survival brain” (limbic system). With the limbic system in the driver’s seat, we are more prone to “automatic” behaviors done for survival. In other words, our brain only knows that it is stressed and needs to survive. Back in the “caveman days” where food was scarce, seeking out food in response to stress meant avoiding starvation. This reaction of seeking higher fat and/or carb foods in response to stress is actually a brilliant survival mechanism. In times of high stress, our ancestors didn’t have time to sit back and

contemplate their 5-year plan. High stress meant danger. Danger meant a need for immediate action. Eat to avoid starvation or run to avoid predators.

To support this survival instinct, our body has established metabolic and hormonal reactions to further help endure stressors. In a normal stress-response, cortisol is acutely elevated, causing metabolic changes (like increased blood glucose mobilization, blood flow redirected to the muscles/heart/muscles, and increased heart rate) designed to prepare us for “fight or flight”. As these changes occur, our body decreases the priority of digestion and appetite. Historically, sitting down to eat never seemed like a top priority when running away from a hungry tiger.

These responses are all what we expect and actually want in response to normal, short-term stress. This is what helps us perform better on the test, in the big meeting, or during our athletic competitions. Where we run into problems is when that stress doesn’t come back down.

Chronic stress can contribute to a host of unsavory health issues. In the context of stress eating, we are concerned with chronic stress causing dysregulation to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This dysregulation can have consequences for our appetite regulation. In general, people already under chronic stress are more prone to experience greater appetite and cravings in response to additional, acute stressors. In these scenarios, research has also shown that people show greater preference for foods higher in carbohydrates and/or fats.

But what happens when, or if, you choose to follow these cravings? What happens, physiologically, when you reach for that pint of ice cream your body beckons for after a brutal day? Interestingly, choosing to abide these cravings may help dampen the stress response. It’s been shown that insulin action helps to reduce cortisol. Insulin is released in response to eating foods, particularly those with carbohydrates. The greater the carb intake, the greater the insulin response. In other words, that sweet treat could actually be just the medicine your body needs to take the edge off your stress. If anything, this speaks to the innate wisdom your body holds related to food and health.

What happens if you resist the ice cream? What if you are committed to a particular diet-style and have decided that whatever your body is craving doesn’t fit in the plan? This is called “restrained eating”, and research has shown that this perspective only serves to further raise cortisol levels during a stress-response and, ultimately, contributes to more frequent and/or intense cravings in response to future stressors.

By fighting these cravings, you are fighting your biology. You’re opposing your survival instincts. The body doesn’t understand the difference between a rough day at work and being chased by a tiger. In the same way, the body doesn’t understand the difference between you choosing to not eat something and starving from lack of available food. To the body, stress is stress. Hunger is hunger. Following a stressful event, your limbic system (“survival brain”) takes over, causing you to be more ‘reactive’ to your stress and emotions. By resisting the drive and urges of “survival brain”, cortisol stays high, the limbic system stays in the driver seat longer, and you feel stressed out longer.

So, what do I suggest? Stop fighting your biology. Eat the ice cream. Help your cortisol return to baseline more quickly, which will let the limbic system take the back seat and put the prefrontal cortex back in control. Once you’re not in ‘max stress’ mode anymore, you can address the thing that stressed you out in the first place and try keep the stress from becoming a chronic issue.

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